The Great Game


The iconic British historian E.H. Carr writes the following about history and its significance in the present day:

“The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.”[1]

As a result, no analysis can be detached from a broad, big picture examination and understanding of history and political decision-making. Without history, one becomes entangled with mere tactics that are detached from the strategic context that is based on “The Great Game” and global balance of power politics, as well as operational concepts that animate the tactical level. History renders the global strategic context transparent and thus an understanding of operational concepts and an understanding of other issues can easily follow.

For the purpose of a campaign analysis surrounding the “Global War on Terrorism” (GWOT), one should begin with a discussion of the global strategic context that stems from the history of what is known as “The Great Game” and European realpolitik that is ultimately based on the divide between British Empiricism and Continental Philosophy.

Strategic Context

Historically, Afghanistan has attracted foreigners not because it possesses any significant geopolitical significance, but because it sits at the intersection of more prosperous nations in Asia seeking to connect through trade and commerce.[2] Foreigners have had problems establishing power in Afghanistan not because of Afghans, but because of rival foreigners trying to establish their power in Afghanistan.[3] This point attests to the American experience in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Afghanistan’s geography renders it landlocked between four major entities: Iran to the west, Pakistan to the south, China to the East, and Central Asian republics that underwent heavy Russification during the age of colonialism to the north. Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and even China to an extent fostered an inhospitable environment for the United States in Afghanistan in order to force an American departure. In the early stages of the campaign in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States dealt with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Now, the United States is dealing with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and what is now ISIS in Afghanistan. In February 2020, the United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban, which signals a drawdown on the part of the United States in the GWOT and an increased focus on China, which is America’s main geopolitical competitor and potential peer power. The goal of the 21st century for statesmen and ordinary individuals is to prevent a major outbreak of war between the United States and China and to elude what is known as “The Thucydides Trap” where the status quo power goes to war with a rising power.

The political objective of the United States underpinning the entire campaign in Afghanistan was the defeat, dismantling, and elimination of Al-Qaeda as well as the state and regime that sponsored them, which was the Taliban. The Taliban, in turn, were created and installed by a foreign entity – Pakistan. The objective of Pakistan in creating and sustaining the Taliban was for controlling Afghanistan via proxy. The reasons for Pakistan controlling Afghanistan is to have a government in Afghanistan that is friendly to Pakistan and to avoid encirclement by India.

The strategic landscape facing the United States in 2001 was such that Pakistan had created, installed, and supported the Taliban in Afghanistan a few years before the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Taliban controlled about 90 percent of Afghan territory up until 2001. The Taliban then gave support and safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran, and India supported the “Northern Alliance,” an Afghan opposition force against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan that held only about 10 percent of Afghan territory at the time.

Thus, the chain went as follows: Pakistan created, installed, and supported the Taliban, and the Taliban supported Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Logically, it follows that Pakistan aided and supported Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. In order for Pakistan to maintain its support for the Taliban and for the Taliban to maintain its support for Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, it needed the tacit support of major powers like the United States and its allies.

By coincidence, an even bigger chain – albeit unintentionally – emerges: The United States paid Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates in return for oil. Then, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates directly and indirectly financed Pakistan. Then, Pakistan creates and installs the Taliban and provides support for the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan. Then, the Taliban give support and safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Then, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda plan and orchestrate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, leading to a very tragic circle for the United States. These events are now common history.

Much of South Asia’s political landscape is shaped by the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent that had been orchestrated by Great Britain. What links Great Britain to Pakistan and Pakistan to Afghanistan is none other than the production of opium and the infamous Afghan drug trade. Afghanistan has long been the world’s largest producer of opium. When Britain controlled Southern Afghanistan during the age of colonialism it used the opium grown in Afghanistan to wage what are now known as the “Opium Wars” of Asia, primarily aimed at China in order to bring China under Britain’s control.

Britain was the biggest trafficker of opium in the age of colonialism, and their opium came from Afghanistan. Drug labs then and now are based in Pakistan, right across the border from Afghanistan. And even to this day, Pakistan is a member of the British Commonwealth. Since 2001, opium production in Afghanistan has gone up by approximately 700 percent. Before 2001, the Taliban had put an end to the Afghan drug trade. Now, the Afghan drug trade is the largest business in the world.

Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Britain contributed troops to the Afghan campaign to secure the southwest region of Afghanistan that coincidentally grew virtually all of the country’s opium. According to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations in 2015, opium is grown and purchased in Afghanistan for pennies, then is processed across the border in Pakistan, and is later sold in advanced cities like Amsterdam for over 40 U.S. dollars an ounce. Britain has long been involved in the growth, purchase, and movement of opium to richer countries while the Pakistani government and Afghan warlords in Southern Afghanistan are responsible for the production of supply.

Along the Britain-Pakistan-Southern Afghanistan supply chain falls Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These three Arab countries combined account for approximately two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves. Qatar also has substantial natural gas reserves, and it is a fact that Russia, Iran, and Qatar combined possess over half of the world’s natural gas reserves. Thus, the lifeblood of the British-Saudi-Qatar-UAE-Pakistan-Southern Afghanistan economy consists of oil and opium.

Britain’s connection to Arabia developed during the age of colonialism. In the 18th century, Britain installed what is now the Saudi Monarchy and the Wahhabi clerics that legitimize the Saudi monarchy. Britain installed the Saudi Monarchy in order to undermine what was then Ottoman rule of Arabia. The Ottoman Turks based in Anatolia possessed Arabia and much of the Levant to the south, and it was a goal of the British during the age of colonialism to break apart Ottoman possessions and take Arabia due to a British belief that Arabia held vast oil wealth.

Britain already secured possession of oil-rich Iran during the age of colonialism and was seeking to expand its oil possessions by seizing Arabia from the Ottomans. While British India (which included present-day Southern Afghanistan) was the “Jewel” of the British Empire, Iran was the “Pearl” of the British Empire. Oil was essential during the age of colonialism because the age of colonialism coincided with rapid industrialization taking place in Britain.

But interestingly, the British searched for oil to no avail in Arabia. In 1933, Britain handed over its rights to explore and secure oil in Arabia to the United States, thinking that the United States would have the same luck they did. In 1939, the U.S. struck gold and found oil in Eastern Arabia. Now, the United States sits on top of approximately two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves. Later on, Britain would also lose its oil possessions in Iran as a result of the Khomeini-led revolution in 1979.

Given these historical circumstances, within the context of the “Great Game” –defined by E.H. Carr in Nationalism and After as determining the number, functions, and boundaries of the national units exercising authority within it[4] – terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban amount to proxies motivated by an urge to overthrow de jure states in the Middle East. The friction the U.S. faced throughout its campaign in Afghanistan came not as a result of its war with the Taliban, but with the alliance, alignment, and axis that sustains them for the pursuit of political and economic objectives. The Taliban, who are predominantly Sunni Pashtuns in Southern Afghanistan, and Al-Qaeda, which is comprised of ultra-religious Sunni Arabs, relate to each other and to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates through a sectarian bond that exists in Middle Eastern society.

Sunni Islam is one of two sects in the Islamic religion. Shia Islam is the other Islamic sect. Iran subscribes to Shia Islam, and thus Iran faces hostility from a range of Sunni states and non-state groups. Pakistan provides the logistical and operational support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE provide the financial support needed for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to tilt the balance of power against the opposing alignment that consists of the European Union, Russia, Iran, and India who in turn support the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Both opposing alignments are trans-Eurasian. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda ultimately became a symptom of the international balance of power politics between the two opposing international alignments, and was created and fostered by the Britain-Saudi-Qatar-UAE-Pakistan-Southern Afghanistan alignment. To this day, the Taliban maintain their political office and their connection to the outside world through Qatar with the support of the Qatari government.

In terms of the Afghanistan issue, Japan sided heavily with the EU-Russia-Iran-India Alignment. Many small states fall within or hedge between the two opposing alignments. Ironically, Clausewitz mentioned the existence of opposing forces, thus making the dialectical situation between British Empiricism and Continental Philosophy a historical reality.


The Bush Administration policy toward international terrorism after 9/11 was the defeat and destruction of Al-Qaeda and the states that sponsor them.[5] In Afghanistan, the Bush Administration went after the symptom, namely the Taliban, rather than the cause, which was the international alliance that sustained the Taliban. The Bush Administration followed the same line as China.

As the world’s second-largest power after the United States, China remained neutral between the two opposing alignments after 9/11. China dealt with terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda within its own borders in Western China, a region that happens to border Pakistan. The United States dealt with the Al-Qaeda terrorist threat in Afghanistan in an attempt to deprive Al-Qaeda of an operating base. However, the Bush Administration remained neutral between the two opposing alignments due to economic and political reasons, and so did China. As a result, the Bush Administration adopted a “leveling the playing field” policy within Afghanistan between Northern and Southern Afghanistan and this policy maintained the balance between the alignment that created and fostered the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and the opposing alignment.[6]

            After the expenditure of immense blood and treasure on the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the Obama Administration had to choose between two major foreign policy priorities:

1) Continue the Bush policy of defeating and dismantling Al-Qaeda throughout the Muslim World

2) Focus on its balance of power strategy against China, which was rapidly becoming the world’s second largest power and a peer competitor of the United States

As a result of the “Asia Pivot”, the Obama Administration limited its resources to the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, thus reinforcing the balance between the two opposing alignments.

Operational Concepts

Operations for the initial stages of the GWOT revolved around two things:

1) Northern Alliance breakout through enemy lines and the seizure of Northern Afghanistan

2) U.S. airstrikes to cause the Northern Alliance breakout.[7]

In order for operations to occur, the United States had to establish the element that dictates and enables operations as suggested by Lawrence Freedman called the “line of operations.”[8] The bases inside Afghanistan were first established by the CIA in the Panjshir Valley east of Mazar-e-Sharif that serviced the operations toward Mazar-e-Sharif later on.[9] In order to fully establish the line of operations, the United States needed one or more intermediate bases between the United States and Afghanistan in order to move materiel, weapons, and forces from the U.S. and Europe to the intermediate bases and from the intermediate bases into Afghanistan.

The United States would establish Oman, situated south of Afghanistan, as well as Uzbekistan to the north of Afghanistan, as the intermediate bases.[10] The goal of the initial operations in Afghanistan was to trap Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the North of Afghanistan by attacking from the west, the south, and the east of Mazar-e-Sharif, thus envelopment and the spread of Northern Alliance control throughout Northern Afghanistan.[11]

Because the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were not a conventional military, U.S. airstrikes moved their focus from attacking stationary targets to attacking Taliban and Al-Qaeda lines, thus leading to a successful Northern Alliance breakout throughout Northern Afghanistan despite the fact that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda outnumbered Northern Alliance forces.[12]

The chain of command for U.S. airstrikes and operations was led by General Tommy Franks, the head of CENTCOM. General Franks would then execute the decisions of the President.[13] The CIA and U.S. Special forces both voluntarily subjugated themselves under the command of General Franks during military operations in Afghanistan. Inter-service and inter-agency politics were put aside for the purpose of eradicating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and thus all agencies and services pertaining to military operations subjugated themselves under the command of General Franks. This organization and unified chain of command led to the swift and successful execution of operations throughout Northern Afghanistan. However, interagency coordination would soon fall apart as a result of Iraq and the differences that emerged between those seeking global hegemony and those who sought a more balanced approach to foreign policy.


Upon examining the strategic context surrounding the battle for Afghanistan in 2001, it appears that U.S. policy execution and military operations fell under the influence of what appears to be an international balance-of-power system stemming from the age of European colonialism and “The Great Game” era. Two poles emerged (The U.S. and China), both of which were dealing with two opposing alignments (EU – Russia – Iran – India – Northern Afghanistan versus Britain – Saudi Arabia – Qatar – UAE – Pakistan – Southern Afghanistan) that set into motion two opposing forces characterized by northern and southern economic systems. One axis is wealthy and powerful, and the other axis is war-stricken and struggling economically.

A single trivial incident along either chain can trigger global destruction, as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary triggered World War I. By then adopting the policy of leveling the playing field, the United States distributed power to both Northern Afghanistan that was opposed to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and Southern Afghanistan that has long been held under the sway of both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Military operations have since been dictated by this policy, such that operations still intend on helping the Northern Alliance maintain a hold on Northern Afghanistan and limited counterterrorism measures are taken against elements of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that threaten the balance of power established in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 based on historic European balance of power arrangements between Britain and Continental Europe.

The United States and China have ultimately conformed to this balance of power system stemming from the British and Continental European divide, with the United States maintaining its historic ties with Britain that have been enforced by America’s recent peace agreement with the Taliban, and with China making an effort to integrate Europe with Asia through what is known as the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). After all, the United States helped create radical groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the 1980’s to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and now the United States has made peace with the Taliban in order to focus on its competition with China.

Historically, Britain has acted as the world’s “offshore balancer,” and is now seeking to establish equilibrium between the United States and China. The recent “Brexit” referendum solidified the divide between Britain and Continental Europe that had emerged during the European Enlightenment. Immediately after Brexit, Britain began engaging the United States in trade talks in order to make the United States a cushion for its global balance of power strategy, while China engaged with Europe in order to discuss the possibility of integrating Continental Europe with Asia through BRI. Competition between the United States and China will channel itself through traditional European balance-of-power politics not only in Afghanistan, but throughout the entire world, and it will end either in a modus vivendi between the United States and China, or the mutually assured destruction of both the United States and China along with the rest of the world.

In other words, the United States must either engage Eurasia constructively or it should withdraw from the Eurasian landmass to prevent the latter outcome. Lack of situational awareness on the part of American policymakers will lead to tragedy on a global level unless there is a change in approach towards China in order to overcome European realpolitik. Global order and stability is predicated on the U.S.-China relationship. The fundamental difference between British Empiricism and Continental Philosophy is that the former is premised on the idea that “reality” shapes the mind, whereas the latter is premised on the idea that the mind shapes reality, and it is through this particular idealism that Europe has remained relevant in world affairs.

When I asked Joris Voorhoeve, the former defense secretary of the Netherlands, the question of how Europe has remained relevant in world affairs, he made a reference to former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Ultimately, the divide between British Empiricism and Continental Philosophy must be reconciled by the United States and China, lest this philosophical divide leads to a recurrence of global destruction.


Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Carr, E.H. Nationalism and After. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945.

Carr, E.H. What is History? New York: Random House, Inc., 1961.

Dobbins, James. After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2008.

Freedman, Lawrence. Strategy: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Schroen, Gary. First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan. New York: Presidio Press, 2007.

Woodward, Bob. Bush at War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

[1] E.H. Carr, What is History? (New York: Random House, Inc., 1961), 29.

[2] Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton University Press, 2010), 66.

[3] Ibid.

[4] E.H. Carr, Nationalism and After (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945), 61.

[5] Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 31.

[6] James Dobbins, After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C., Potomac Books, Inc., 2008), 96.

[7] Woodward, Bush at War, 51.

[8] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 74-75.

[9] Gary Schroen, First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (New York: Presidio Press, 2007), 68.

[10] Woodward, Bush At War, 189-203.

[11] Schroen, First In, 171.

[12] Ibid, 253-254.

[13] Woodward, Bush at War, 292.

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